Over 2.25 million men and women will be housed in jails and prisons across America this year. These inmates come from all different backgrounds. Some of those incarcerated are Christians who have fallen into sin, and others have been converted while in prison. Still more remain in the bonds of sin apart from Christ. This presents the church of Jesus Christ with a great opportunity.
The early church was was thrust into prison ministry through persecution. The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Colossians 4:3, saying, "At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison..." Paul was only one of many Christians imprisoned for their faith. The church responded by ministering to the needs of those behind bars. We read in Hebrews 10:34, "For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one." This counter-cultural verse that was the theme of the 2006 Thank Offering, is also an impetus for us to pursue the important task of prison ministry as we also seek to show compassion on those in prison. We read a few chapters later in Hebrews 13:3, "Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body."
In my short time of service as a volunteer chaplain at a maximum security prison, I have been amazed at the opportunities available to minister to the inmates. Where I serve, which I hear is true of most prisons, there are only two staff chaplains for 3,700 men. The chaplains rely on the service of volunteers to do much of the cell-to-cell visitation, lead Bible studies, and lead worship services. There is an ongoing need for more volunteers to serve in this mission field. In a place that is filled with darkness and despair, it is a joy to see men and women gripped by God's grace and filled with the joy of Christ. Though they remain in bondage as a result of their sin, they are free from their bondage to sin! Hardened criminals have their hearts of stone replaced with a heart of flesh ruled by the peace of Christ. It is a testimony to the transforming power of the Spirit that men are brought from darkness to the light of life. It is not by the work of the correctional officers that men's hearts are transformed. It is the testimony of many that the prison system is not successful in producing a work of reformation in the hearts of the inmates. God works powerfully through his appointed means, as his servants bring his his holy word behind the barbwire fences, concrete walls, and steel doors to where there are men and women who are hungry for the meat of the word.
Prison ministry presents many unique challenges, but also many unique opportunities. You do not need to be an ordained minister to volunteer at a local jail or prison and to share your faith with others. Prison ministry is not for everyone and it is not without its risks. Many inmates are dangerous and have already committed acts of violence and brutality. However, most of the inmates I have come into contact with have been respectful and thankful. I dare say I have been treated better by many inmates than I have by men and women I've had contact with through my normal pastoral ministry.
I encourage you to consider whether God might be calling you to become involved in prison ministry. Even if it is just a few hours a week, the Lord can use you as his tool through which he calls his people to himself. You do not even have to set foot inside a jail or prison to be involved in this ministry. There are numerous pen-pal programs, as well as correspondence Bible studies that you can be involved in with grading the inmates work and mentoring them long distance. Two such ministries that are operated from a Reformed perspective are Crossroad Bible Institute and Metanoia Ministries. This is an important, yet often neglected ministry. Recall the words of our savior in Matthew 25:34-40,
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'"
It is noteworthy that our savior mentions prison ministry specifically in this parable. Jesus came to save sinners and did not shy away from cultural outcasts. He actively loved the sick, diseased, and derided. He befriended tax collectors and prostitutes, those who were shunned by his own people. He even set his love upon you and me! What a privilege it is for us to be salt and light in this world for his glory, to be at work telling others of the truth of his glorious gospel of grace. May we serve him with zeal for his honor and glory alone! If you have any further questions about serving in this area, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.